On Monday, surrounded by first-generation students sitting in rows behind her and adorned in a black robe not unlike the one she wears to oral argument, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor accepted an honorary doctorate of laws from University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel (“Go Blue!” she said, to thunderous applause from an electric crowd, given the snowy weather outside and the early hour). Sotomayor was in Ann Arbor to participate in one of the first events of the University’s bicentennial, a colloquium titled, “The Future University Community.” After receiving her degree, the Justice joined German Justice Susanne Baer for a wide-ranging conversation moderated by NPR journalist Michele Norris.
The dialogue began with a timely question about unity and division. Norris asked the justices how to reunite a community. Sotomayor discussed her experience on the Court. While she may disagree with her colleagues often, she remains friends with them, she said. They share passions: for the country, for the constitution, for the state of the government. Their differences lie in the question of methods, but through respect, they can come together, said the justice.
Norris inquired more into Sotomayor’s academic history. She asked the justice how she had changed at Princeton, from a timid shy first-year student to one of the best students in the history of the school by her graduation. Sotomayor responded that she listened more than spoke when she was younger. Mildly echoing the criticisms of safe spaces espoused by her more conservative colleagues, Sotomayor instructed the audience that students need the “trauma” of making oneself uncomfortable. The justice recounted an experience with privilege; in college, she said, she would go out of her way to talk to students with much different backgrounds than her own; she would talk to the students who would travel on vacations or who had a long history of family legacy at the storied Ivy League school in New Jersey.
Justice Baer, in a recurring refrain that earned more than a few chuckles, largely agreed with Sotomayor. Baer, a German lesbian woman who studied law at the University in the early ’90s, related her experiences in a foreign country. She echoed Sotomayor’s statements, arguing that being uncomfortable and dealing with failure are good ways to learn that success is anything but guaranteed. She was afraid to speak in class, she recalled, but because her last name, Baer, was always at the top of each roster, she was called on first. The key, she told the audience, is to find a safe space that can allow forward movement. Sotomayor added that, through writing her book, My Beloved World, she became closer to her old friends by sharing stories. That idea of “you tell me a story, I’ll tell you one in return,” remarked Norris, comes from anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.
Norris then moved to the topic at hand: the future university community. On the question of what universities of the future would look like, Sotomayor generated cheers, then even more cheers, by saying it’s going to look a lot like Michigan, but with even greater diversity. It’s an ideal to be a color-blind society, said Sotomayor, but to achieve that goal, we have to talk about it. Until we reach that equality in education, we can’t reach equality in the larger society, said the justice. “You need to figure out how to engage everyone in receiving that quality education.” While Sotomayor pointed to race, her German counterpart indicated class is playing a large role as well. “The access points are still depressingly shaped by class,” Baer said. And finally, in a not-so-subtle criticism of the fresh immigration restrictions ordered by President Trump, Baer noted the importance of academic communities staying open to everyone around the world.
Before opening the justices up to students’ questions, Norris directed the conversation to citizenship education. Sotomayor called on all students (a great many of whom responded affirmatively, that they had) to read the Constitution in full. “It only takes ten minutes,” she said. “Well, I’m a fast reader, so give it 15, OK?” Implicitly referencing her own established position, a defender of the “living constitution” ideology, she called on the students to note what the document doesn’t include, like a right to education, or compulsory voting, or an official declaration that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of laws. On the subject of voting, Sotomayor called for a more robust system of enticements to get people to the polls. “I don’t ask you to be lawyers,” she told the students. “But I do ask you to be informed citizens.”
The first question from a student asked about using and dealing with identity. Sotomayor admitted there was a fine line in that fight. Judges all have identities and they’re impossible to deny. But Sotomayor’s ultimate message was that the brightest among us are strategic. She listens to all arguments, figures out where to compromise, and pushes her colleagues until they’re forced into accepting a moderate result. Baer also defended “bringing [her] identity into the Court.” As an inherent part of our lives, they shape how we (and others) perceive the world, she said.
Justice Sotomayor walked off the stage and into the audience, shaking hands with nearly everyone she passed (including Professor Pamela Brandwein, who gave a lecture at the Court in 2015, and Warde Manuel, the current Athletic Director for U-M) like a judicial Willie Stark.
The next student question linked the topic of the future of the university with the legal profession: how should justices try to create a more diverse profession? Sotomayor’s lawyerly response came in two parts: First, justices have a responsibility to tell law schools what they want. Justices have a responsibility, said Sotomayor, to mentor people of different backgrounds. “If we insist, you’ll comply,” she said, with a smile. Second, the Court desperately needs greater diversity in the types of lawyers serving. Justice Ginsburg is the only civil rights lawyer and much of the rest were criminal prosecutors. No criminal defense or environmental defense or family lawyers sit on the Supreme Court, yet the justices are supposed to be the heads of their entire industry.
Last, after witnessing an election that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged would be a referendum on who should replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Court, a student asked what role public opinion plays in formulating decisions. Justice Baer, speaking directly to the student in the audience, argued that it was her duty to let herself be influenced by public opinion. “I watch the news, I talk to people,” she said. And if she shouldn’t listen to such factors, “What should I be connected to?” she asked. Sotomayor closed the dialogue by defending some of her controversial decisions, saying that her opinions and votes that have sparked backlash were not for lack of consistency with public opinion and disconnect — her opponents just disagreed with the outcomes.